When I first joined the Student Union, I quickly discovered that most of my fellow bloggers, and indeed most of our readers, were students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, not from Western Europe like me, and certainly not from England. At first I thought this might be a problem.
Do I really deserve my place here, being from a relatively comfortable background and part of a culture that many think closely resembles America? Will my experiences and anecdotes, troubles and triumphs, be as valuable or even as interesting as those of somebody who is coming to America from a place where everything from the language to the food is unfamiliar? How can I relate to people from all over the world, having only really experienced the European way of life?
And as I considered that last question, I began to think that actually maybe I’m not the only one who is nervous about, essentially, making friends in America.
Making friends was my biggest worry when I started university in England, and it was my biggest worry again when I came to America. Except this time, I wouldn’t be one among many students starting school for the first time. I would be the outsider; the new kid starting two years after everyone else had already settled in, the English boy who dresses a bit differently and has a funny accent. But worst of all, I would be alone, without any friends or family nearby to go and talk to or just to relax with – no way to escape from the pressure of trying to assimilate and make friends.
So you can begin to understand the mental state I had somehow put myself in by the time I arrived here at the University of Maryland.
You might be thinking that I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘daunting,’ being a Brit and sharing some familiar cultural customs with America as we do. I know that in many ways I have it easier than other international students. After all, I didn’t have to worry about my language skills, and many people in England even complain about how much our culture has been Americanized - we have brands like Hollister, we have snapback baseball caps, and we have a desire to be constantly entertained.
But as an Englishman abroad, I can promise you that the similarities end here! I have been completely surprised by how different America is from England. The convenience of fast food, the willingness of strangers to approach you and talk to you about anything, and even way people participate in class discussions have all come as a bit of a surprise – a pleasant surprise mostly – to someone who is from the land of the reserved and polite.
On the day I first arrived at school, nervous and worried, the university had set up the community room as a meeting place for the new exchange students, and I took a seat and attempted to begin a conversation with the others who had already arrived.
Within 10 minutes, I had already spoken to people from Tunisia, Australia, Denmark, Poland, Japan and Italy. I had begun to learn a little bit about them – where they’re from, what their home universities are like, how they came to be an exchange student in America - and I was beginning to realize that I’m not alone here at all.
All of these people had made the same choice as I – to step out of their comfort zone and try something new, to meet people from another walk of life, and to hopefully learn a little along the way.
And as the weeks have gone by, I can already feel myself developing as a person, as I gain a more educated and tolerant perspective on the world and the people in it.
For example, I had a long and truly insightful conversation with a Tunisian exchange student, where she spoke about the revolutionary situation that is going on in her country right now, and the fear of living in such turbulent and unpredictable times. Frankly, I was taken aback. Although I have heard all about the ‘Arab Spring’ in the news, I had never really considered the impact of these events on people just like me.
Such eye-opening (although not always quite as serious) conversations have become more and more frequent as I meet new people, and I have started to feel that my whole outlook on life, and the path I would like to follow, is changing. The decision to travel abroad, although daunting, has led to experiences that have been unforgettable – seeing the Statue of Liberty in New York, going to an actual college football match, and even learning just what Greek Life is all about.
It is almost embarrassing now to recall how nervous I was when I first arrived!
It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from or how different (or similar) your culture is, studying abroad is a huge step. But it doesn’t take long for any fears you had to evaporate and any doubts to turn into relief that you decided to move across the world to be here; especially when all the other exchange students are excited to help begin a new chapter of your life together in America.
And one thing that prospective international students should know to help calm the nerves is that, in my experience, many Americans are not only extremely friendly, but are also very easily entertained! So even if you come from what you think might be a boring country (like England for example), or can’t think of anything exciting to say to stimulate conversation with someone from a foreign country, you only have to use your accent to keep the attention of every American in the room! It really is this easy!
Of course, the British accent is known for being popular in America, particularly among American girls. But I also come from the West Midlands of England, which many Brits would agree means that I speak with the worst accent an Englishman can have, making the whole “hooking up with girls” thing not as easy as some might think.
But I digress.